Leadership Is a Contact Sport

My career as an executive coach began many years ago with a phone call from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. I had just given a leadership clinic to the CEO’s human resources department. This is what I was doing in the late 1980s – advising HR departments about identifying future leaders in their companies and creating programs to form them into better leaders. The CEO had attended the session and from what I’d said he thought I might be able to help him with a VP who, though smart, dedicated, motivated, hard-working, and creative, was also a stubborn, opinionated, know-it-all. I was intrigued by this challenge.

I had coached many groups of mid-level managers who were on the verge of success, but never an individual who was already very successful and needed to make a change to be blasted into the stratosphere. I took the job – and I took it on a pay for results basis. If the VP improved, I’d get paid and if not I told the CEO it was free.

That was a couple of decades ago, and I did get paid. Since then I’ve worked with more than 150 CEOs and their management teams. My job isn’t to make anyone smarter or richer. It’s to help people identify a personal habit that’s annoying their coworkers and to help them eliminate it so that they retain their value to the organization. And, to help them develop their people as well, because you see, without their colleagues, their people and teams, these leaders, as successful as they might be, would have no one to lead.

Developing as a leader is a difficult endeavor. (If you’re reading this article you can probably relate.) Demands on leaders are increasing, meaning there is less time for focusing on change. And, the catch is that as more is expected of you as a leader, the less time you have for development, and yet improving your leadership skills is more important than ever. It’s a tricky situation. With limited time, you have to learn on the job. You have to make the most of your surroundings and ask those around you for help. You have to enlist their support as you do your best to develop yourself, your people, and your teams – even them!

It’s not easy, but I’ve developed a leadership development model that has now proven to work with thousands and thousands of people. This model is just eight steps: Ask, Listen, Think, Thank, Respond, Involve, Change, Follow Up. Following is a very short description of each step. I’ll go into more depth in subsequent blogs.

1. Ask: Ask people “How can I be a better _________ (manager, partner, team member, etc.)?

2. Listen: Listen to their answers.

3. Think: Think about their input. What does it mean?

4. Thank: Thank people for sharing this valuable feedback with you.

5. Respond: Respond positively when receiving input.

6. Involve: Involve the people around you to support your change efforts.

7. Change: Change isn’t an academic exercise. Act on what you learn.

8. Follow-up: Follow up regularly and stakeholders will notice the positive actions you’re taking based their input.

This simple model for leadership development works! If you want to get better, at work or at home, try it for yourself and see. And, if I can help you consider the possibility that despite all of your success to date you might have some things that you can change to be “even better”, then I will have done my job.


Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement will be published in his upcoming book Triggers (Crown, 2015).

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2 Responses to Leadership Is a Contact Sport

  1. John G. Agno says:

    The Leadership Apprenticeship Model for personal development requires us to spot leaders early and put them in situations that drive them to grow fast. People with the right talent and high potential must embrace opportunities to learn by doing: practice, feedback, corrections and even more practice.
    Leadership development is no longer a discrete activity run by HR staff; it’s an everyday “contact sport” that’s fully integrated into the fabric of a business. Line leaders play a central role in providing the necessary practice and feedback.

    More at: http://coachingtip.blogs.com/coaching_tip/2008/02/leadership-de-1.html

  2. Sidhartha Ganguly says:

    I have attended marshal”s program in India when he had come a few years back. He is awesome and a true maverick. He drives people on the auto mode through simple and easy to understand pointers which are not very hard to understand but really very difficult to follow.

    I must say if one can follow his simple practical steps then ego will fly from the window and change will happen. Understanding self through external feedback and being at it is a sure way to change.

    He is so simple practical and his presence is so magnetic that change is just a fall out.
    All the very best for your new book “Triggers”

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